People who grind their teeth can sometimes develop a serious problem with their jaw, which left untreated, can adversely affect the teeth, gums and bone structures of the mouth. One of the most common jaw disorders is related to a problem with the temporomandibular joint, the joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull, and allows your upper and lower jaw to open and close and facilitates chewing and speaking.

People with temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) often have a clicking or popping sound when opening and closing their mouths. Such disorders are often accompanied by frequent headaches, neck aches, and in some cases, tooth sensitivity.

Some treatments for TMD include muscle relaxants, over the counter antiinflammatory drugs such as Advil, or wearing a small plastic appliance in the mouth during sleep.

Minor cases of TMD involve discomfort or pain in the jaw muscles. More serious conditions involve improperly aligned joints or dislocated jaws. The most extreme form of TMD involves an arthritic condition of the jaw joint.

The Temporomandibular System

The temporomandibular system consists of three basic components; the temporomandibular joint or TMJ, the teeth, and the neuromuscular system.

TMJ- This is the term often used to describe TMD, but it specifically refers to the joints that work your lower jaw, or mandible. These two joints are found just in front of the ears. Their close proximity to the ear is why some patients experience ear symptoms and can often hear the joint pop or crack. These two joints never act alone, that is, when your jaw functions, both joints will be working. There is a small cartilage disc between your lower jaw and skull in the joint. Some TMD problems are caused by dysfunction of this disk. When healthy it acts as a sort of "shock absorber" for the joint.

Teeth- The teeth are like the third leg of a tripod, the TMJs being the other two legs. The alignment of your bite and the functioning of the TMJs are intimately connected. Problems in any of the three areas may effect the other two.

Neuromuscular- This system is the nerves and muscles which work the temporomandibular system. It is important to realize that only the lower jaw, or mandible,moves during jaw function. The upper jaw, or maxilla, does not move; it is firmly attached to the skull. Therefore, the nerves and muscles are involved in moving the lower jaw only. The nerves transmit the messages for the muscles to move the jaw. They also transmit pain signals to the brain causing you to feel discomfort. The muscles are fairly large and are found from the side of your head down to your neck. Other related muscles that do not specifically work the jaw, but are sometimes symptomatic are found in the neck, face, and upper back.

What Defines TMD

Symptoms and signs of TMD can include some or all of the following....

  • Jaw pain and/or stiffness
  • Headaches, usually at the temples and side of head
  • Vague tooth soreness or toothaches which often move around the mouth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Painful or tender jaw joint
  • Difficulty opening jaw
  • Pain and fatigue when eating hard or chewy foods
  • Clicks, pops, or grinding sound in jaw joint
  • Ear pain
  • Cervical neck tension and pain
  • Tooth wear
  • Awareness of grinding/clenching teeth while sleeping or awake (Bruxism)
  • A pattern of breaking or cracking teeth with no other cause, i.e. tooth decay or trauma
  • History of medically diagnosed migraine headaches (common incidence of concurrent TMD)